What science tells us

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Science Today: Problem or Crisis? Edited by Ralph Levinson and Jeff Thomas Routledge, #163;12.99

Science Today: Problem or Crisis? contains 15 essays, each by a different author. Mainly concerned with the nature and purpose of science teaching in schools, it also has some provocative pieces on the nature of science and some excellent contributions on the public understandi ng of science.

The level and coverage would make this a good source of material for students faced with the task of writing essays on many aspects of contemporary science education, but the lack of an index inevitably reduces the book's usefulness.

Apart from that grumble, Science Today mainly deserves praise. The editors have arranged the essays sensibly, provided several cross-references between them, and ensured that each is broken up into clearly focused subsections.

The resulting book, though undeniably an anthology rather than a monograph, has an unusually consistent feel and is a pleasure to read. Almost all of the essays are well written, most are interesting, and a few - such as Robin Millar's "Science Education for Democracy" - are outstanding.

Millar's essay nestles amidst contributions from a number of prominant science educators, including Edgar Jenkins and Joan Solomon. His calm analysis of what people need to know to respond to socio-scientific issues,such as BSE or global warming, spotlights one of the central problems of science education: the need to help students see how a conjecture can attain the status of agreed knowledge, without leading them into a pointless questioning of firmly established "core" concepts.

Millar's clearly expressed views on what can be realistically expected of school practical work, the proper role of scientific modelling and the importance of introducing ideas on probability and risk assessment in the science curriculum all deserve attention.

Another outstanding contribution, almost pyrotechnic in nature, comes from the ever reliable (and usually controversial) Lewis Wolpert, the current Chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

Wolpert's very stylish essay leads the opening section on the nature of science. It's a good start. It will contain no surprises for those already familiar with his widely publicised views on the "unnatural nature of science" but it will delight (or antagonise) those encountering him for the first time.

Other members of the familiar band of "usual suspects" who have been rounded up for inclusion in the opening section are Mary Midgley and Hilary Rose. Their more academic contributions are thoughtful but not outstanding - each assumes a familiarity with recent writing on the nature of science that may not be present among their readers, though there are plenty of references for those who wish to pursue the subject.

References and factual information are also plentifull y provided by the essays on scientists and the public that round off Science Today. Graham Farmelo, head of exhibitions at the Science Museum, leads with a well informed and insightful examination of informal sources of science education - including museums, television, radio, newspapers and science centres, such as the Bristol Exploratory.

The Exploratory's founder, neuropsychologist Richard Gregory, follows this with a discussion of the importance of play in science and science education.

The rear guard of this impressive trio of contributions is provided by Sue Pringle of the University of Bristol, who describes some of the interactions between research scientists and members of the public that have occurred as a result of efforts to take science to the public.

These three essays, together with an earlier item on changing attitudes to the public understanding of science, give a clear picture of the enormous range of these activities in Britain. They demonstate that propagating the public understanding of science can affect the scientists involved as well as those members of the public at whom they are targeted. Moreover, they also show that improving the public understanding of science will not necessarily improve the level of public approval and support for science.

Despite its sub-title, Science Today gives no real impression of a crisis in science. It does, however, clearly set out some of the problems that attend the teaching and public understanding of science, and it deserves a wide readership among those interested in such matters.

Robert Lambourne is deputy head of the Physics Department at the Open University and a consultant to the Oxford University Department forContinuing Education

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